I woke up this morning and found the start of a flood of Facebook posts that I thought had to be a hoax, but they were true: Dave Brockie, also known to many as Oderus Urungus of Gwar, had been found dead last night. He was only 50.
I must have first heard about Gwar back in 1990 or 1991. I remember hanging out with Sid Sowder and Matt Reece over at their dorm room in Wright Quad, and them playing the Live from Antarctica videotape, while telling me the story of an infamous show in Indianapolis, where they played at an old Howard Johnson’s and completely destroyed their ballroom. They took on the role of the most extreme band in my head, this melding of Troma shock-horror movies and extreme metal, demonic costumes and fake blood. The lyrics were campy and meant to be offensive, and yet the music was nuanced and more sophisticated than most typical metal bands could belt out.
I didn’t really start listening to them until America Must Be Destroyed came out in 1992. When I DJed at WQAX that summer, the station had it on CD, and I dubbed a copy and listened to it constantly. The concept album told a story about censorship, blind patriotism, the gulf war, and predicted the dubya-ization of the country that would uncannily happen a decade later. I loved the CD, and played the title track almost every week on my show.
I was never a loyal Gwar fan, and they were more of a thing I’d forget about and then fall into every few years, going down the rabbit hole and watching and rewatching the Phallus in Wonderland tape. But then five years would go by until I’d pick up another album. The horror-metal category was always filled better for me by the band Haunted Garage, but they’d only released a single album on Metal Blade before completely vanishing from the scene. (They’ve since reformed and have done local shows in LA, though. Check them out over on Facebook.)
But Gwar still helped define that era for me, the early 90s. I started listening to that album constantly when I was writing Summer Rain, and mentioned it a few times in there. And one of the distinct memories I have of my cross-country trip in 1999 was this long and boring drive from St. Louis to Bloomington. I had already listened to everything I owned 19 times in the last week or two of driving across the southwest, and was going through entire albums from this Summer Rain playlist, playing that game where you force yourself to not skip songs and go through the entire album from first to last track in order. I was somewhere on I-70 and very clearly remember listening to “Rock N Roll Never Felt So Good” and thinking how amazing the authorship of the song was, how it wasn’t just some speed metal collection of noise, but had such a carefully crafted structure that showed a decent musical knowledge, even though the song was about fucking a 13-year-old quadriplegic with a piece of frozen shit.
John Sheppard just saw Gwar last year, which made me go back and buy their newest album, and we planned on going to see them again when they came back to the US for the next leg of their tour. It was like a religious experience for him, and I really wanted to check it out, even if it involved flying to Alabama or something. Unfortunately, that won’t happen, which really sucks.
Oh well. I guess the lesson to be learned though is how you really need to chase down your creative extremes and beat them to the ground. Gwar started out of a freaky group of artists who wanted to shock people and do weird out-of-this-world shit, and that’s exactly what they did. They didn’t set out to win Grammies or sell albums, but instead decided to marry together extreme horror movies and the performance of loud music, and they did it balls-out for thirty years. Given the choice of doing the ridiculous and pointless that you really want to do or doing the expected and formulaic, they chose the former, and it gave them unprecedented loyalty from their fan base. There’s something to be said for that, and it’s something to keep in mind as I try to figure out what the hell I’m doing next.
Long live Oderus! Antarctica will miss you.